The US Department of Education has announced more than $36 billion in emergency grants for postsecondary education under the American Rescue Plan Act’s Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF III). For the first time, international students will also be eligible for assistance.

According to the department, the funding, which will provide help to over 5,000 HEIs, is more than “double the emergency relief aid available to students and institutions already authorised under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) and the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSAA) relief legislation”.

“These funds are critical to ensuring that all of our nation’s students – particularly those disproportionately impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic – have the opportunity to enrol, continue their education, graduate, and pursue their careers,” said US secretary of Education Miguel Cardona.

“With this action, thousands of institutions will be able to provide direct relief to students who need it most, so we can make sure that we not only recover from the pandemic, but also build back even stronger than before.”

The funds can be used initiatives such as the retention and reengagement of students through projects supporting mental health and virtual services, and preventing the spread of Covid-19.

However, around half of the funding must provide direct relief to students, which unlike previous support packages will include international students, DACA recipients and US students on study abroad, although the department emphasised “that institutions must ensure that funds go to students who have exceptional need”.

“The department encourages institutions to prioritise domestic students, especially undergraduates, in allocating this funding,” it said.

“Students studying abroad may [also] receive HEERF emergency financial aid grants from the recipient institution where they are enrolled. These students must meet the criteria based on prioritising exceptional need that the institution has established for distributing its HEERF emergency financial aid grants.”

The news has been welcomed by groups that have previously voiced their opposition to the lack of help available to international students in the US during the pandemic.

“The Department of Education’s updated guidance that expands eligibility for the HEERF financial aid grants to all students regardless of immigration status is very welcomed news,” said Miriam Feldblum, executive director of the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration.

“Both Congress and courts across the nation had already spoken clearly – emergency relief funds, passed through various pieces of Covid-19 relief legislation, are meant for all students with need.

“The previous administration’s efforts to limit the availability of these funds was wrongheaded, counterproductive, and represented an abdication of responsibility to immigrant and international students enrolled in higher education and contributing to their campuses and communities.”

Jill Allen Murray, deputy executive director, public policy, at NAFSA told The PIE News that she “applaud[ed] the Biden administration for allowing all students to have access to funds based not on where they are born, but on their financial need”.

“The Covid-19 pandemic knows no borders and basing aid on the situation and not place of origin of students is the humane thing to do,” she said.

The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators president Justin Draeger added that “denying emergency grants to DACA and undocumented students wasn’t just legally questionable, it was a moral failing”.

“I’m relieved and thankful to see that corrected,” Draeger said.